Annie Proulx’s Musicology

by Graeme Smith

© all rights reserved

The central protagonist of Annie Proulx’s Great American Novel, Accordion Crimes, is a diatonic button accordion. In 1891, a Sicilian accordion player and maker meticulously puts together his master piece and, full of hope of musical fortune, takes the instrument with him to America. Over the next hundred years the instrument is owned by Texas Mexicans, Maine and Quebecois and Cajun French, Chicago Poles, Midwestern Germans and Irish. Eventually, the accordion disintegrates, perhaps a symbol of the disappearance of the working class subcultures in which it was played.

An accordion made a cameo appearance in Proulx’s The Shipping News, accompanying the rich and grounded domestic sociability of the woman who helps the misfit Quorn to rebuild a social self in provincial Newfoundland. Proulx’s interest in other “roots” musical styles is also apparent in her collection of short stories Heart Songs. The title piece is a bizarre documentation of a Yuppie new homesteader coming across the startling old time kitchen music of a backwoods family and comprehensively and disastrously misreading the social dynamics and family structure.

Proulx’s sardonic view of insider/outsider relations, mapped onto the tight and brutal integrity of local worlds, similarly informs Accordion Crimes. The book tells the story of the racist exclusion from the American dream of various immigrant ethnic communities. But each of them are also trapped in racism, particularly against African Americans, but also against other immigrant groups – Irish, Poles or whomever. In the epigraph to her book Proulx quotes Cornel West: “Without the presence of black people in America, European-Americans would not be “white” – they would be only Irish, Italians, Poles, Welsh, and others engaged in class, ethnic, and gender struggles over resources and identity.”

The one hope of assimilation was invisibility – learn the language, change your name. Even if assimilation were possible, the cultural costs were enormous. On this brutal historical path the musical styles which various immigrant communities developed and made their own were both defence and nostalgic comfort. But more than this, they provided ways of working out emotionally satisfying compromises with the contradictory and uneven progress of modernisation to which emigration had exposed so many. Proulx is a keen fan of ‘old timey’ music styles, and she shows impressive erudition in her evocation of Tex-Mex, Cajun, Polka and other musical styles played on the Sicilian’s green diatonic accordion.

Diatonic accordions were developed in the early nineteenth century and penetrated popular music-making with a speed unparalleled until the appearance of the electric guitar. They have a couple of rows of buttons on the right hand end which each play a major scale when you alternately press and draw the bellows, like a bellows-driven mouth organ. At the other end, eight brass buttons give a rudimentary accompaniment of a few primary chords. From Nigerian Ju-ju and Columbian Vallenata to Clinton Chenier’s Zydeco and Sharon Shannon’s contemporary Irish traditional music, this instrument has proved versatile enough to play in many musical languages. But it was also limited enough to accomplish its primary musical task – to reach an audience with a bright, penetrating tone, a clearly articulated rhythmic style, and a powerful melodic clarity.

Diatonic accordions evoked the sounds of home and its social relations, but they also spoke the voice of modernity – of industrialisation and the metropolis. Their manufacture and their voice depended on industrial techniques, the tight, Swedish blue-steel reeds made the sound, not the gut and wood of traditional instruments. In contrast to unreliable nature, which had betrayed the emigrant, accordions spoke of control and power.

The American ethnomusicologist Charles Keil 1 argues that Urban Blues, American Polka, Greek Rembetica, and any number of other urban popular styles, share a proletarian aesthetic which can be read as compensation; that as people lose control of their daily life they wish to feel it in their music and so the music becomes increasingly streamlined. So from Muddy Waters to B. B. King, from Nacisco Martinez to Flaco Jimanez, from polka players like Lil Walter Jagiello to Frankie Yankovic, from Irish accordionists, Joe Flanagan to Paddy O’Brien, we see modernised musical styles driven by an urge to smoothness and control. 2

This aesthetic dynamic is well illustrated in Proulx’s book. The Tex-Mex player, vain, defensive and patriarchal, works in the space between the old-style playing of Martinez and that of the modern traditionalist and world music star Flaco Jimanez. Quebecois accordion music is transformed from a kitchen music to a virtuosic art form by dedicated revivalists, but as the style evolves and gains in social status, so the players on which the music claims to be based are excluded. As the century wears on the diatonic accordion is superseded as a voice of modernity. Its once exciting sound, the punchy or gasping bellows shuffle, is overtaken first by smoother, louder, more sophisticated accordions, and then by the globalised languages of country, soul and rap.

In The Shipping News, Proulx displays her fascination with the detail and physicality of boat-craft, instructing the reader on such matters as thwarts and gunwales. Similarly, inAccordion Crimes, she captures the obsessiveness of accordion makers and players in her fastidious descriptions of construction and tuning techniques – of skived kidskin, obdurate walnut and mephitic dust. She describes how a player who moves from a diatonic accordion to a Parisian musette, has “to learn this myriad of buttons, to cast from his mind the old simple pattern, to train his fingers to dance [to gain] the sonority of the instrument and the rich possibilities of the chromatic scale.” The musical instrument is another prosthetic of the musician’s body, the pleasures of the music are those of the heavy metal guitar or the street machine, the yearning for power and control over one’s own environment and circumstances, however fleeting and illusory this may finally be.

From 1890 to 1990 the accordion has only a century to pass through many hands, and Proulx gives most of its owners violent ends to move it quickly on to a new community. Controlling powerful, dangerous machines is part of daily existence for Proulx’s accordion players, and few writers can match her evocation of the poetic potential of the chain saw and the pick-up truck. Her protagonists’ untimely deaths are like a string of industrial accidents. They have nothing but their bodies to sell; eventually full payment is demanded. The accordion is thus both another machine and another body, with its own expressive breath. Its voice, aching or bitter, its gasping and sighing like the body in self-absorbed passion: “it sound like my women”, says Pollo, the Louisiana creole.

As the old green accordion declines and fragments, so too do the worlds of its players, whose children and grandchildren are now reeling from the decimation of American heavy industry. In Accordion Crimes, Proulx casts a bitter eye over the physical and cultural price extracted from these people for the right to survive as Americans.

Graeme Smith is postdoctoral research fellow in the School of Sociology and Anthropology at La Trobe University and he plays the diatonic button accordion. This piece is extracted, with permission, from Arena Magazine.


1. Charles Keil and Stephen Feld, another critical ethnomusicologist have recently assembled a collection of essays and dialogues entitled Music Grooves ( University of Chicago Press, University of Chicago, 1993). This book is a good entry point to Keil’s (and Feld’s) work. Keil’s ideas on proletarian streamlining come from his essay “Slovenian Style in Milwaukee” in Folk Music and Modern Sound, eds. W. Ferris and M. Hart, University Press of Missippipi, Jackson, 1982.

2. Graeme Smith “Modern Style Irish Accordion Playing: History, Biography and Class”, Ethnomusicology, Vol 41, No 1, 1997 (forthcoming).

Those interested in Popular Music Studies could go to the web site of IASPM, RPM online (The Review of Popular Music), The International Association for the Study of Popular Music, or Australian readers could e-mail the Australian Branch secretary Karl Neuenfeldt

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